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Phil Mickelson Interviewed in Antitrust Inquiry Into Pro Golf

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PITTSFORD, N.Y. — The Justice Department’s antitrust inquiry into men’s skilled golf has included interviews with players, including the key tournament winners Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and Sergio García, because the authorities examine whether the PGA Tour sought to control the game’s labor market.

The department, which has been conducting its investigation since not less than last summer, has also explored the specter of collusion within the Official World Golf Rating and the tight-knit relationships between the leaders of the PGA Tour and the distinct organizations that stage the Masters, the P.G.A. Championship and the U.S. Open.

Although lawyers for the PGA Tour met with Justice Department officials in Washington this week, a timeline for the review’s completion — much less whether the federal government will attempt to force any changes in golf — isn’t clear. However the inquiry’s scope and persistence has deepened the turbulence in the game, which has been grappling with the recent rise of LIV Golf, a league that used money from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund to lure top players away from the PGA Tour.

Eight individuals with knowledge of the Justice Department’s inquiry described its breadth on the condition of anonymity since the investigation was pending. The department declined to comment.

Unlike Major League Baseball, no golf organization has a blanket exemption from federal antitrust laws. A handful of organizations which have close ties to at least one one other have run golf’s top echelon for generations but have withstood some scrutiny previously.

The PGA Tour, the dominant skilled circuit in america and LIV’s opponent in a pending antitrust lawsuit that the rebel league brought last yr, stages tournaments which have often made up the vast majority of golfers’ competition schedules. However the tour doesn’t run the 4 so-called major tournaments, that are the game’s most cherished events and essential ways for players to earn prize money and sponsorship-sparking clout.

This week’s P.G.A. Championship, as an example, is being overseen by the P.G.A. of America at Oak Hill Country Club, just outside Rochester, N.Y. The U.S. Open is organized by america Golf Association, and Augusta National Golf Club administers the Masters Tournament. (The R&A, which organizes the British Open, is predicated in Britain.)

The groups haven’t moved in lock step since LIV debuted last yr — the circuit’s players, for instance, haven’t faced bans from the majors — but skilled golf’s establishment has remained a spotlight of antitrust investigators. Lawyers for LIV have cheered the federal government’s scrutiny and have commonly communicated with Justice Department officials, who’ve taken no stance on the league’s lawsuit against the PGA Tour and haven’t intervened within the case.

“If the system is rigged, then consumers aren’t getting the perfect product, and if that’s the results of an agreement between two or more parties, then that becomes a violation,” said Stephen F. Ross, who teaches sports law at Penn State University and previously worked for the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission.

The PGA Tour, which declined to comment on Wednesday but has aggressively denied wrongdoing and predicted that the department’s inquiry would fizzle, adopted a tough line last yr when LIV emerged. It threatened, after which imposed, suspensions to discourage players from defecting to the Saudi-backed league, which has offered guaranteed contracts sometimes price $100 million or more and provided among the richest prizes in golf history.

Tour executives have insisted that their strategy was rooted in membership rules designed to guard the collective market power of elite players in matters like television-rights negotiations and tournament sponsorships, and that golfers who breach rules they agreed to could be disciplined. But investigators have shown interest in the chance that the tour’s punitive approach threatened the integrity of golf’s labor market, which now features a LIV faction that vocally argues that players are independent contractors who ought to be free to compete on tours as they select.

The department’s inquiry swiftly moved beyond a superficial glance at LIV’s public complaints and got here to incorporate interviews with a few of golf’s most recognizable figures.

Mickelson, who has won six majors, including the 2021 P.G.A. Championship that at 50 made him the oldest major tournament winner in history, has been a fearsome public critic of the PGA Tour. He accepted a reported $200 million in guaranteed money to hitch LIV last yr, provoked a firestorm when he played down Saudi Arabia’s record of human rights abuses and, last month, all but silenced individuals who doubted his remaining playing potential when he tied for second on the Masters.

DeChambeau was a sensation when he captured the 2020 U.S. Open title, and García, a Masters winner, first starred at a serious within the Nineteen Nineties and has been amongst probably the most distinguished European golfers of his generation.

Representatives for Mickelson and DeChambeau declined to comment. A representative for Garcia didn’t reply to messages requesting comment.

LIV declined to comment. However the league’s commissioner, Greg Norman, publicly hinted in March on the circuit’s cooperation with the Justice Department investigation.

“The D.O.J. got here, trying to know the antitrust side of things,” Norman said during an appearance in Miami Beach. “So the PGA Tour created this other legal front that they must fight.”

The review of the tour’s labor practices could prove probably the most consequential element of the investigation, antitrust experts said, if the Justice Department finds fault with the circuit’s approach.

“That one goes more to the type of core of what the PGA is,” said Paul Denis, a retired Justice Department official who later worked on antitrust matters in private practice. “If that’s where they’re headed, that’s way more significant because that actually does affect their business model by way of their relationship with the players.”

But American regulators have also develop into increasingly mindful of the close ties amongst golf’s strongest organizations and their executives and administrators.

That prong of the investigation isn’t unique to the golf inquiry. Through the Biden administration, the Justice Department’s antitrust division has shown particular concern about people serving in multiple top roles for potential competitors, and its misgivings have sometimes led directors of public firms to give up board seats.

In October, Jonathan Kanter, the assistant attorney general for the antitrust division, said that the prohibition on overlapping service was “a very important, but under-enforced, part” of federal law.

Whether the Justice Department seeks to compel changes in executive or board leadership in golf may hinge on whether Kanter and his lieutenants imagine they will prove that the PGA Tour is a competitor to a serious tournament organizer, a notion that tour executives have privately scoffed at and used to forged doubt on the strength of the department’s potential case. The tour and the key tournaments jockey for television-rights fees and sponsorships, but they’re removed from head-to-head rivals in lots of senses.

They do, nonetheless, cooperate.

The tour has a stake on the earth rating system, which major tournaments use, partly, to find out their fields. Together with the tour, Augusta National, the P.G.A. of America and the united statesG.A. even have seats on the rating system’s governing board, and all of them supply personnel for its technical committee.

Player rankings are based on a fancy formula that considers performances in accredited tournaments, from PGA Tour events to competitions on circuits that draw little notice. Since administrators haven’t yet acted on LIV’s application to take part in the system — LIV executives have acknowledged that the league would require special dispensations to be accepted immediately — its golfers have slid downward within the rating, threatening their future participation within the majors. (Jay Monahan, the tour’s commissioner, has recused himself from deliberations about LIV’s bid to hitch the system.)

The Justice Department’s inquiry is of considerable importance to LIV Golf, which has faced setbacks in its lawsuit against the PGA Tour. However the league has spent months stoking chatter in regards to the federal investigation, its potential implications for the PGA Tour — and the potential advantages for LIV.

The tour has countered that effort by citing its record: an F.T.C. inquiry that lasted years and led to 1995 with none motion against the tour.

Shortly beforehand, Norman’s first quest to begin a worldwide circuit to rival the PGA Tour collapsed.

David McCabe contributed reporting.

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